Home Education Magazine
March-April 1997 - Columns
Older Kids - Cafi Cohen
The "S" Word
It happened again last weekend. A new acquaintance, this one a mother with grown children, learned that we had homeschooled our kids. Her most burning concern: what about socialization?
Paradoxically, the questioner had just spent an hour plus with our two kids, home for the holidays. Before she had learned about Jeff and Tamara's backgrounds, she commented about how outgoing, mature, and capable they seemed to be. Despite this observation, once she learned about our homeschooling, she couldn't help wondering about the "S" word.
There are specific scenarios, I believe, that prompt the concern of those unfamiliar with home education. "How do kids, especially teenagers, meet other kids?" "What about football games and the prom?" "What about graduation?" It's amazing how many questioners refer back to those supposedly pivotal, formative experiences when they first think about home-based education.
For the sincere questioner, I often recount a small portion of our experience. Our kids left school in grades six and seven. Both had been doing well academically and had the usual contingent of age-peer friends. Jeff and Tamara were neither wildly popular nor outcasts, just average kids with average school social experiences, some good, some bad.
We decided on home education, principally for academic reasons (we simply thought we could a better job). Like many long-term homeschoolers, we continued homeschooling for many other reasons, among them flexibility, student autonomy, family closeness, fun, and -- last but not least -- socialization. Yes, socialization became one of our reasons for continuing to homeschool.
It was interesting. Our kids had friends when they attended school. But after a year of homeschooling, I realized they had more friends than they had had while in school. Of course, this was contrary to my expectations, just as it was contrary to the expectations of my new acquaintance, mentioned above. I will be the first to admit that I was initially confused by it all. Who would expect kids, especially teenagers, to have more friends in a homeschooling environment?
Watching Jeff and Tamara, though, it all became clear. Our homeschoolers had more friends because they had more time and energy for friends. That's what friends take -- time and energy. As homeschooled teenagers, they had an abundance of both. No longer were my kids hobbled eight or more hours each day by busy work and educational administrivia. Instead, they worked on academics, generally completing them in the morning; both had had much more time to make and be a friend, to socialize.
Not only did Jeff and Tamara have more friends, they had more diverse friends. They were no longer restricted to kids in a one to two year age range, living in our zip code. Instead, they had younger, older, even adult friends -- all from the larger community.
When we began homeschooling, we, like many other new homeschooling parents, looked for social outlets with the local homeschool support group. While our kids enjoyed many of the activities (things like Game Days, Geography Bee practice, a writing class, etc.) and were fortunate to meet nice teenagers this way, none became close friends. Homeschooling, in of itself, did not seem to be enough of a common tie, especially for the older kids.
Instead, we discovered that Jeff and Tamara were most likely to meet others and develop close friendships like adults do -- via neighbors, relatives, and existing friends -- and while exploring their interests. They made friends of all ages though sports, 4-H, Civil Air Patrol, the church youth group and choir, and at various volunteer jobs. I observed the same thing among other homeschooled teenagers in our support group. Groups as diverse as The Society for Creative Anachronism, community drama productions, bands and orchestras, martial arts classes, art classes, and radio clubs provided social outlets for many of them.
During their high school years, both of our homeschooled teenagers had the opportunity to participate in all of the usual high school activities. Their friends (most of whom attended school) invited them to football and basketball games, school dances, and musical productions. One fall, Tamara attended homecoming dances at three different high schools (getting a lot of wear out of the single formal dress she made for all three events). Both kids were invited to proms and had the opportunity to participate in a formal graduation. One statewide support group offered one such ceremony, as did our local school.
So when people ask about socialization and homeschooling, I have to honestly reply that our principal problem was keeping a lid on it. The phone rang constantly. After less than a year of homeschooling, I could never put socialization on a list of homeschooling problems or challenges.
Other homeschooled teenagers report different experiences, of course. One 16-year-old told me, "I don't socialize a lot with people my own age, but then again, it's because I just don't have time, not because I'm homeschooled. I do my schoolwork, go to work, am very active in 4-H, eat, and sleep. I love most of what I'm doing and wouldn't have it any other way. We belong to a 400-family home education association, which offers monthly bowling, skating, teen club, and care group activities. I guess the bottom line is, if I want it, I can easily get it; the hard part is finding time."
In yet another family, the older homeschoolers spend most of their time on academic pursuits or in group family activities (10 children here!). They live in a remote location and seldom see outsiders. Their social contacts occur primarily, but not exclusively, in interactions with parents and siblings. Are the children (many now grown) shy and reclusive, as some alarmists might predict? Quite the contrary. They are poised, self-confident, hard working, very well educated, and generally pleasant adults. How bad is that?
My conclusions from my observations of our kids and of other homeschoolers are as follows.
Even though they are available in one form or another, those pivotal social experiences (proms and graduations) plus daily age-peer contacts are not needed to produce a socially-competent individual. Many homeschooled teenagers grow into capable, poised adults without those experiences.
Second, while schools may want and need the general public to believe that socialization is The most important things they do, real world socialization experiences (regardless of the size of that world) far better prepare kids for the challenges they will face.
Third, looking at socialization as a goal may be fairly non-productive. As an adult, my best social interactions have occurred when sharing my interests with like-minded individuals. I don't think kids are any different. Urge your teenagers to follow their hearts; positive socialization will usually follow as a byproduct. © Cafi Cohen
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